From the Academy: Mysticism and Philosophy

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Elliot R. Wolfson is the Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, where he teaches courses in mysticism, Kabbalah, and the philosophy of religion. Two of his books, Language, Eros, Being (2005) and Through a Speculum That Shines (1994) have been awarded the National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship, and the latter volume also won the American Academy of Religion’s Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of Historical Studies. His most recent publications include Alef, Mem, Tau (2006) and Venturing Beyond (2006); Footdreams and Treetales (2007), a book of poems; and Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson (2009), which was published last month by Columbia University Press. His work explores the rich, complex symbolic systems elaborated in mystical and philosophical texts. Elliot Wolfson

How do you define Jewish mysticism and Jewish philosophy? What’s the relationship between them?

Both Jewish mysticism and Jewish philosophy are complex and multifaceted phenomena that cannot be easily defined. In general terms, however, we could demarcate mysticism as an intensified path (encompassing both ritual and knowledge) that facilitates the individual’s communion with or direct experience of what is considered in a particular cultural context to be ultimate reality, whereas philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge and truth about the world and the human through the mediated exercise of reason and logical argument (even irrationality is examined philosophically through the prism of the rational).

Moses of Burgos, a kabbalist active in the second half of the 13th century, famously said that the kabbalists stand on the head of the philosophers. This statement underscores the intricate relationship between the two worldviews, marking the point of their convergence and divergence. In my own scholarly practice, I have elicited mystical elements from philosophical works and philosophical insights from mystical sources.

How does the study of mysticism and philosophy complement historical or sociological approaches to the study of Jewish experience?

Jewish studies is eclectic but the predominant methodology remains the historical, which tends to examine phenomena from the vantage point of a linear chronology. More recently, a greater attention has been paid to sociological and anthropological approaches, but this has only reinforced the conception of time presumed by intellectual and social historians. The study of mysticism and philosophy provide an alternative orientation to comprehend the experience of Jews. In Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson, I provide a striking example of how a philosophical inquiry yields an understanding of this hasidic master’s apocalyptic vision that ostensibly contradicts the view that has been informed by the ethnographic study of his followers. Previous discussions on the messianism of the seventh Rebbe of the Habad-Lubavitch dynasty have been informed by considering the movement and thus they have ignored the theological and philosophical dimensions of his teaching, which in my view, are precisely what fueled the movement.

Schneerson, like his predecessors as well as a plethora of other Hasidic masters, is indebted to the kabbalistic notion that all that transpires in the physical world is a symbolic mirroring of what occurs in the supernal world of divine emanations. Based on this conception there is no way to understand Schneerson’s understanding of historical events without interpreting them symbolically. It is with regard to this insight that I think the philosophical study of mysticism can complement historical and sociological approaches to the study of Jewish experience.

What do you see this field offering to Jews outside of the academy?

The field can contribute immensely to Jews outside the academy by enriching their understanding of the complexities and profundities of Judaism as a religious and spiritual culture. But a gift cannot be received unless there is a recipient sufficiently engaged and willing to receive it. The delivery of a complex message demands a rhetoric that is commensurately complex and too often Jews outside the academy are not willing to be pushed to think harder and to expand their vocabulary. I would note, parenthetically, that the field also has much to contribute to non-Jews, as it delves deeply into the human condition more generally and the pursuit for truth and meaning. But let me be clear: I do not think an academic discipline plays the role of mandating behavior of contemporary Jews or non-Jews but I do believe that the more one knows of the past the better informed one will be of the multivocality of a particular tradition, which sometimes entails coming to terms with problematic aspects that need to be reformed.

What drew you toward this field?

I was raised in an Orthodox environment and thus was exposed to Jewish practices and texts from the time I was a small child. As a teenager, I started to read Hasidic sources, especially Habad and Bratslav, and through them I had my first encounter with the mystical dimensions of Judaism. In college I pursued the study of philosophy and started to become interested in Hindu and Buddhist sources, which led me to the intense study of Jewish mysticism. To this day, my work on Jewish mysticism reflects both my philosophical training in phenomenology and hermeneutics and my interest in Asian religions.

What are the most pressing questions that remain to be answered by scholars of Jewish mysticism and philosophy?

There are still dozens of texts buried in manuscript, so in some sense we are still charting out the different contours of the fields, especially in the case of Jewish mysticism. One of the most important issues to be explored is the relationship between the philosophical and the mystical approaches. The 19th-century pioneers of the critical study of Judaism bifurcated these disciplines and, to a great extent, they still are treated as separate. The most pressing question for the future is to determine to what extent this bifurcation is an accurate reflection of the past. I would also say that it is necessary to cultivate a comparative approach that does not neglect the specificity of each tradition but also is open to lines of commonality. As I write in the preface to Open Secret, my hermeneutic belief is that “by digging into the soil of a specific cultural matrix one may uncover roots that lead to others.”

Are there particular challenges, whether institutional or intellectual, facing students who are interested in studying Jewish mysticism and philosophy?

Both disciplines are extremely demanding, requiring mastery over several languages and a rather large corpus of material. In addition to the Jewish sources, a student must also become familiar with the philosophical and the mystical texts of other traditions, so it is quite a daunting task. I would say that this is the greatest intellectual challenge. Institutionally, the challenge is one of financial support for this kind of research, to convince donors that these subjects are worthy of study without any political or ideological agenda being served, but this is a larger matter that needs to be discussed in a different venue.

If a reader wants to learn more about the study of Jewish mysticism and philosophy, what would you recommend he or she read?

For the non-academic reader, I would suggest Abraham Joshua Heschel’s essay “The Mystical Element in Judaism,” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, edited by Susannah Heschel (1996); Louis Jacobs, The Schocken Book of Jewish Mystical Testimonies (1998); Brian L. Lancaster, The Essence of Kabbalah (2005); and Byron L. Sherwin, Kabbalah: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism (2006).

Posted on November 23, 2009

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4 thoughts on “From the Academy: Mysticism and Philosophy

  1. Ron Krumpos

    While I fully agree that reading sacred texts and mystical teachings in their original language is preferable to reading them in translation, that poses a significant challenge when studying comparative religion and their traditions of mysticism. Knowledge of Hebrew for Judaism, Sanskrit for Hinduism and Pali for Buddhism are extremely helpful for their orthodox writings. Many of the most influential mystics, however, wrote in other languages. I once counted 35 languages which would be required to study the mysticism of five faiths in their original. Unfortunately, translations themselves often vary, as I’ve encountered in reading 180 books in English about mysticism in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.

  2. matthue

    Ron, I suppose that begs the question, is it possible to compare religions (or mysticisms) in the first place? Certainly, there are often similar messages, and sometimes similar stories or parables. But just like no words are exactly translatable between languages (while in English, “white” refers to something entirely absent of color; in Kalaallisut, an Eskimo language, “white” might refer to something that’s almost translucent, like melting snow), our cultural ideas of mysticism are so fine-tuned and unique that that’s what they might remain — unique. And, therefore, untranslatable.

  3. Ron Krumpos

    Whether or not an exact comparison can be made – between religions or their mysticism – people do it all the time. Within Judaism, members of Hasid, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements are comparing themselves often. As is true in most correlations, the speaker’s or writer’s own group usually is preferred.

  4. Ron Krumpos

    It may not be possible to make exact comparisons – between religions or their mysticism – but people do it often. Orthodox and Reform, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Sunna and Shia, et al. You cannot exactly compare two people.

    Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.

  5. Ron Krumpos

    Matthue, in my e-book at one chapter makes a basic comparison between five religions:

    The word God, as used in English, is Allah in Arabic, Brahman in Sanskrit and ha-Shem (the Name) in Hebrew. God is Theos in Greek, the first written language of the New Testament. Nirvana in Buddhist Sanskrit can also mean absolute Truth: ultimate Reality.

    Hinduism had no one founder; the Vedas advanced orally about 200 years before being recorded in Sanskrit from ca. 1300-600 B.C.E. The Hebrew Bible developed at least 300 years after Moses, ca. 1000-400 B.C.E. Gautama had been born a Hindu and taught in Prakrit; Buddhism’s first written canon was in Pali nearly 400 years later, ca. 17 B.C.E. Jesus was born a Jew and preached in Aramaic; the New Testament had evolved from ca. 100-367 C.E. Muhammad spoke Arabic; the written Qur’an was formed within 30 years of his death in 632 C.E. Scholars do not always agree on those dates.*

    Hindu scriptures also refer to Ishvara, a more personal aspect of Brahman, and often to Vishnu and Shiva, two of Brahman’s trinity, plus incarnations in Krishna and Rama. The Hebrew Bible uses the sacred, unspoken, YHVH (YHWH) for God; Adonai replaces it when reading Jewish scriptures. Ha-Shem is used in conversation. Mahayana and Vajrayana vehicles may consider the Dharmakaya (“dharma-body” or Buddha-nature) more correct than Nirvana, final realization of the Theravada. In the first written New Testament, Jesus referred to God as Abba (Father) and Lord applied to both the persons of the Father and the Son in the Trinity. In the Qur’an, al-Haqq(the Truth, the Reality) is supremely the title of Allah. Islam has “99 Beautiful Names” for Allah’s perfection; other faiths credit many attributes to God. In English, Absolute, Almighty, Deity, Supreme and other words are used to refer to God; divine, holy, omnipotent, omniscient, and other adjectives usually apply only to God.

    The Vedas, most sacred to Hindus, were rejected by Buddhists who also defined many Sanskrit words differently, e.g. nirvana. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, are most revered by Jews and are studied by most Christians. Practices and customs may vary between countries, as apparent among the predominately Muslim states, or blend in local mythology, such as in Hinduism on Bali. Doctrine for any one religion may differ between its divisions or their branches, like within the many Protestant denominations.

    In Vedanta, Brahman is considered as the One God; Hindus of Shaivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism may worship a chosen god, goddess or incarnation who emanates from Brahman. In Judaism, behavior and worship may vary among movements: Conservative, Hasidism, Orthodox, and Reform. Mahayana Buddhists rely on guidance of others and prayer; Theravada stresses self-reliance and good works; Vajrayana has secret rituals and metaphysics. Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and other Christians differ often on grace, the Trinity and sources of doctrine. Ibadi, Shi’a and Sunni Islamic sects disagree on Muhammad’s successors and on the status of imams; Sufi orders among them may worship differently. Hindu texts written in classical Sanskrit sometimes changed when translated into India’s 17 modern languages or into English. The Hebrew Bible varied in Greek and Latin; except for Protestants, the canon of Christianity’s Old Testament included many books not in Judaism’s canon. Buddhist texts in Pali and Sanskrit were often interpreted differently in other Asian languages and Ch’an/Zen downplays the use of scriptures. The New Testament has had many changes during translations, literal and idiomatic. The Qur’an was written only in Arabic for more than 1,200 years; first translations were in the early 1900’s, but are not considered true Qur’an.

    *Some scholars say that the oral traditions of Hindu and Jewish texts were first written in the 3rd Century B.C.E.

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